Every year, millions of people are ferried across its waters, enjoy fireworks from its shores, soak up sun on its many beaches and cool off in its sheltered bays.
It's at the centre of Sydney's coveted outdoor lifestyle and one of the most hashtagged destinations in Australia. Circular Quay may be its most obvious focal but why not go beyond the hustle and bustle and explore the harbour like a local or in a whole new way?
Have a wander (or a paddle)
Enjoy views of Shark Island, Strickland House and Sydney’s Harbour Bridge on the gentle Hermitage Foreshore track that runs from Rose Bay to Nielsen Park in Sydney’s east. Along the way, stop off at quaint Milk Beach for a leisurely picnic with a view. Tucked away in leafy Vaucluse, you’ll feel like you’re the first person to discover this tranquil and secluded spot. More adventurous types can jump on a sea kayak, or even a stand-up paddleboard (hire your vessels at Tingira Memorial Park). If you're feeling fit, paddle past Strickland House and around the rocks at Steele Point and pull your kayak up onto Shark Beach (ignore its unfortunate name). Grab a snack from the kiosk at The Nielsen (there's also a charming sit-down restaurant) or find a spot on the sand to people watch before heading back.
Strickland House, 52 Vaucluse Rd, Vaucluse; (02) 9337 5999
Hire a private yacht
If you really want to immerse yourself in the harbour, a yacht charter could be just the thing. Sydney Harbour Exclusive offers boats you can hire for any length of time between four hours and a few weeks, if you’re feeling extra decadent. Different vessels have different inclusions, such as a swimming platform, Jacuzzi or water-sport equipment like wakeboards and donuts; the team can help you find the right boat and tailor the right experience for you. The perfect afternoon? Start with drinks and canapés on the deck, stop for lunch and a swim at a secluded cove and then cruise around the harbour’s edges as the city lights up in front of you.
Soak it up in a bath with a view
If you're after a harbourside sleepover that's as close to the water as you can get, the Admiral Suite at Walsh Bay's Pier One is it. The luxury hotel's most exclusive suite offers panoramic views of Luna Park, Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, which you can enjoy from an armchair on your private deck or while dining on the balcony. But the best observation spot is the opulent bathroom, where a freestanding bath sits next to floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open out onto the balcony. Don't despair if the Admiral Suite isn't available – both the Harbour View Balcony Suite and Harbour View Suite have just-as-impressive views.
11 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, Sydney; (02) 8298 9999
Head to the inner-west
Originally home to the Gadigal people, Ballast Point Park is a 2.6-hectare urban oasis set on Birchgrove’s picturesque peninsula. The site was bought by the government from Caltex in 2002 and opened as a public park in 2009. Have a barbecue, cycle around the park’s pathways and discover the art installations that hint at the area’s past. There's also a playground and lookout and the park is easily accessible from the Balmain Ferry Wharf – just walk through Mort Bay Park and join up with Ballast Point Pier.
4 Ballast Point Rd, Birchgrove
Grab a coffee with a side of scenery
Experience the harbour like a local. Celsius Coffee Co. on Kirribilli Wharf is a pit stop for commuters grabbing their morning fix but why not take it slow, soak in some harbour views and opt for the all-day breakfast. You'll find it impossible to choose between the very naughty Aussie-style full English breakfast and bacon-and-egg rolls and the healthy Super Greens plate and chilli-buttered eggs with onion jam. Non-coffee drinkers can grab a cold-press juice or pick from a selection of blended herbal teas.
Kirribilli Commuter Wharf, 1/2 Holbrook Ave, Kirribilli
Go on an outdoor adventure
Explore Cockatoo Island's rich historic past by taking a guided or audio tour, or try the intriguing self-guided Ghosts of Biloela app tour. Don't miss the picture-perfect views of the Harbour Bridge from the Biloela Lawn, the convict precinct with original sandstone buildings and former shipbuilding sites. Make some tasty charcoal on the communal barbecue facilities or have a bite at Societe Overboard before watching the sun go down by a campfire. There are camping and glamping facilities set up by the waterfront or, if you're not a happy camper, you can rent one of the island's well-appointed apartments or houses. In the morning, walk through Dog Leg Tunnel to Marina Café and Bar on Camber Wharf to pick up a Toby's Estate coffee before jumping on the ferry back to the mainland. If you have time to spare, stop at Greenwich Point and walk the short distance from the wharf to Greenwich Baths for a pleasant dip in the harbour before landing back at Circular Quay.
SEE ALSO: Spend the Night on Cockatoo Island
Scale a different structure
Does the thought of the Bridgeclimb fill you with nerves? Never fear. There’s another way to experience a 360-degree water view without donning a Bridgeclimb suit to get there: the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout. Perched on the south-east pylon of the Harbour Bridge, you'll find iconic views of the harbour from the open-air viewing area. On your way up the stairs take a breather and feed the brain with historic exhibits, including artefacts and rare photos cataloguing the building and opening of the bridge. There's no doubt the exertion is worth it for the spectacular vista at the top and admission is only $15. It's less for children and concession card holders and free for kids under four.
South East Pylon, Sydney Harbour Bridge (access from the Bridge Stairs on Cumberland Street); (02) 9240 1100
Set foot on a Martello tower
Completed in 1857, Fort Denison was built to protect the harbour from Russian and French invaders. Catch the ferry or book a water taxi to disembark at this historic military fortification, the most intact example of a Martello tower in the world and the only one to have been built in Australia. Run by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife service, the price of the ferry service is inclusive of the $7 landing fee (contact the park directly to pay this if you're coming via private water taxi). Once you've landed, visit the original working tidal gauge and keep an ear out for the firing of the cannon at one pm (sailors used to set chronometers by the sound). Best of all, the middle-of-the-harbour location provides incredible views of the Botanic Gardens, the edge of the lower North Shore, the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
A daily ferry service operates between 10.30am and 4pm and departs from Wharf 6 at Circular Quay.
Sit back and relax
You don't have to board a boat to get on the water; visit a bar perched right on the harbour and drink in a cocktail (or two) as well as the fresh sea breeze. There are tried-and-tested venues, such as Little Fish Bar, The Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf and, a little further afield, Manly Wharf Hotel. The newest spot to hit the scene is Empire Lounge, located on the wharf that services Sydney Seaplanes. You don't need to be booked in for a flight to have a drink, and there's even a small museum dedicated to the history of seaplanes in Sydney. If you're looking for more of a see-and-be-seen scene, the pontoon bar, The Island, is a good bet. You can purchase tickets to their Beach Club through their website (request a membership online first) and the price includes a return water taxi and a welcome drink. On board you'll find a full bar, comfortable seating and a mini-pool floating off the side which is accessed by a handy set of steps.
SEE ALSO: The Best Beaches in and Around Sydney
Top image credit: Zakarij Kaczmarek (Cockatoo Island)